Completed Dress and Textiles, Portraits: British 16th and 17th C, Portraits: British 18th C 26 Could this be a portrait of Alexander Gerard (1728–1795), Professor of Divinity at King's College Aberdeen?

Topic: Subject or sitter

I know in their gallery the University has short-listed this as a possible portrait of Alexander Gerard (1728–1795), Professor of Divinity at King's College Aberdeen, but they aren't sure. I think it matches the caricature #2 of Sapient Septemviri, 1786 (see NPG website: Very similar robes, wig, nose, face, cheeks, eyebrows, etc.

Also the sitter in this portrait is wearing similar robes as Alexander Gerard's son Gilbert in his portrait at the same gallery, who succeeded him at the college:

Scott Duggan, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. The date range 1678-1750 previously assigned to the portrait has been replaced by c.1750-1775. The discussion did not produce sufficient evidence to change the title from ‘Portrait of a Gentleman’ and the artist remains unknown.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


Kieran Owens,

From page 118 of Volume X of the Aberdeen University Review (1923), the following snippet has been taken: "....there is a proper portrait of Alexander Gerard in the Senatus room at King's College, and one of his wife as well. He is a nice-looking man, wearing a small white wig....". Perhaps this volume could be consulted by one of the Aberdeen University researchers to see if the rest of the description fits the discussion portrait.

Osmund Bullock,

Good find, Kieran. I've managed to cheat a bit more out of the Google snippets: "He is a nice-looking man, wearing a small white wig, such as one associates with bishops. His face is gentle and refined, the expression perhaps a little too suave, but a judicious blending of the portrait and the caricature would probably give the proper balance." That seems a fair enough description.

It continues (re his wife's portrait): "Mrs. Gerard must have been a charming — a consciously charming — lady, and a dressy one too, as her blue satin gown and the Alencon lace of her sleeves testify. A dainty dog-collar of lace and pearls surrounds her neck, and she wears a pink rose in her bodice. The dress must have been a quite lovely one and shows her to have been a person of great taste. She holds a little ... ". That's as far as I can get. I thought that might enable us to spot his wife's portrait (and see if they made a a pair), but in fact I see she's already identified:

They seem to be (if measured in the same way) of slightly different sizes, and not a pair as such - but they go together reasonably well. What about the frames - are they the same? And are there any other possible candidates for his portrait in the Collection (there are over 400, and I don't have time to check just now)? If not, then it pretty much has to be him.

Kieran Owens,

Although not the subject of this discussion, the University of Aberdeen's portrait of Mrs. Jane (aka Jean) Gerard, the eldest daughter and co-heiress of Dr. John White (aka Wight) of Colnae, to whom Alexander Gerard was married on the 14th June 1757, might have been painted by Allan Ramsay. See attached composite for this consideration.

See the attached clipping from "Officers of the Marischal College and University of Aberdeen, 1593-1860" for a biographical entry for Alexander Gerard and the mention of the University of Aberdeen's possessing a portrait of him.

In 1754, Gerard was a founding member of the 'Select Society of Edinburgh', which also had Allan Ramsay in its number. Gerard and Ramsay were both subsequently involved in the writings of the Scottish Enlightenment in the years 1756 and 1757.;="Alexander+Gerard"+ramsay&source=bl&ots=iop5rwzDTi&sig=2oYfHjnp9LiGgWNc9UoKXB-_cGg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiDlbym-cDXAhUMKMAKHRn9AXEQ6AEIPjAJ#v=onepage&q="Alexander Gerard" ramsay&f=false

Could it be that the portrait of Alexander Gerard was also by Ramsay?

Martin Hopkinson,

No one has made any suggestion as to the artist, probably a painter of the generation of William Cochran, William Millar and David Martin. Was there a portraitist in Aberdeen to whom one went at this date?

Jacinto Regalado,

The portrait of Mrs. Gerard needs cleaning/restoration, but it strikes me as inferior to the other portraits in the composite. I suppose it might still be a Ramsay, but I would want stronger evidence to accept it as such.

Kieran Owens,

Purely for the sake of comparing their Doctoral robes, attached is a composite of our sitter with Robert Hamilton (1743 - 1839) and Hugh Blair (1718 -1800). The three tassels on each man's arm indicate the status of their positions. If our man is Alexander Gerard, then all three of them were founder members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783.

Scott Duggan,

Well spotted Kieren, I didn't know that detail about the robes, I'm coming from the family history angle. I found this detailed list on the founding members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh... ( ) and it verified that Alexander Gerard was a founding member of the society in 1783, as were the other 2 men you supplied.
The Uni of Aberdeen which has the proposed portrait of Alexander Gerard, had listed it as possibly being 'Matthew Mackail Sen (1657-1696)' - (Google Books: 'British and Irish Paintings in Public Collection...' -p127) he graduated Kings College in 1696 and appears to have died that year (wikisource), and thus wasn't alive in 1783. So the portrait can't be of him.
So you have supplied another piece of evidence to strengthen the case that it's Alexander Gerard's portrait. Good work.

Jacinto Regalado,

There is certainly a resemblance, but our man appears to have had a cleft chin, unlike Rev. Ogilvie.

In any event, our sitter should be described as a clergyman, which is more specific (and useful) for search purposes than gentleman.

Martin Hopkinson,

The most likely of the 3 candidates mentioned above as to the painter is probably William Millar, but I am not totally convinced that he is our man

Guillaume Evrard,

If the University are keen on identifying the sitter, Rev. Ogilvie seems a strong lead (or at least that both portraits are of the same sitter, if the identification of the Seven Trades portrait was in doubt).

The cleft chin doesn't seem a deal breaker (it could be about the physical body of the painting (or even the reproduction), rather than the physical body of the sitter (it could also be some artistic licence around the chin area of the Seven Trades portrait went to the painter to encourage ).

The side-by-side comparison attached looks rather compelling.

Kieran Owens,

The attached is taken from "Letters of Richard Radcliffe and John James of Queen's College, Oxford, 1755 - 1783", edited by Margaret Evans in 1888. If the portrait mentioned therein in the same as the one illustrated above as being in the collection of the Seven Trades, it is reported that it is by James Nisbet. If this is the case, then, if this discussion's portrait is of Ogilvie, could it also be by Nisbet? And who is James Nisbet? I cannot find any information on him.

Jacinto Regalado,

There is no suitable Nisbet in Oxford Art Online, only a John Nesbit (painter), active in London in the 1760s. There is no Nisbet at all in Bryant's Dictionary of Painters and Engravers.

Jacinto Regalado,

Nisbet is an English and Scottish surname that originated around the border region. There are alternate spellings including Nisbeth, Nisbett, Nesbit, and Nesbitt. It is possible that the John Nesbit active in London from 1763-1768 (according to Oxford Art Online) was previously active in Scotland.

Jacinto Regalado,

John Nesbit, of course, may also have worked in Scotland after his time in London. Presumably, he should appear in reference works devoted to Scottish painters.

Mark Wilson,

The W D Geddes who was the source of the information in Keiran's clipping is presumably William Duguid Geddes who was not only Principal of Aberdeen University at the time but seems to have taken an interest in local history. So the information should be fairly reliable and it might suggest more information in the archives of either the University or the Seven Trades.

Osmund Bullock,

Stewart & Cutten ('Dic of Portrait Painters in Britain...') list a Banff portrait painter, 'J. Nisbet' (Banff is in more or less the same corner of Scotland as Aberdeen / Fittie, albeit 40 miles away) - signed copies dated 1769 by (?)him of works by Ramsay are apparently recorded, but they give no more details. They also note an artist called Nisbet (no first name or initial) who exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1763, and suggest (s)he might be the same. In the Society's catalogue, however, no address is given, and Nisbet is an Honorary Exhibitor (i.e. an amateur) who shows only two landscapes.

I suspect Oxford Art has taken the Stewart & Cutten information and expanded it beyond what is really known.

Martin Hopkinson,

Fittie is an interpretation of the common local pronunciation of Footdee, the community on the north side of the Dee at its mouth just east of Aberdeen

Osmund Bullock,

Indeed, Martin. It took me quite a while to figure out that "Futlie", as given in Kieran's printed extract from 'Letters of Richard Radcliffe...', was a misreading of that somewhere along the line.

Jacinto Regalado,

Ogilvie was an alumnus of King's College in Aberdeen (M.A. in 1724) and a minister at Footdee 1720-1726. Did he have any other connection with King's College?

Marcie Doran,

The University of Aberdeen has an annotated version of the image of the Sapient Septemviri (attached). It shows that Alexander Gerard was caricature #2, as surmised by Scott in the introductory statement to this discussion and as later discussed by Kieran (15/11/2017 17:12).

Here, too, is a notice that was placed in the 'Aberdeen Press and Journal' of the 14th of March 1768 by a portrait painter named James Nisbet (Kieran 11/07/2021 18:05).

Lou Taylor, Dress and Textiles,

To add my penny's worth and in case the debate about a 'pair of portraits' moves forward, the portrait of mMs Jane Gerard, mentioned above, would seem to date from about 1760-65. The sleeve ruffles, neckline, lace fichu, dress trimmings, and low hair line all match the 1762 portrait by Katherine Read, attached, of Lady Glenconner which is in the McManus Gallery, Dundee.

Jacob Simon,

We are asked, “Could this be a portrait of Alexander Gerard (1728–1795), Professor of Divinity at King's College Aberdeen?” Currently, this fine historic portrait in the University of Aberdeen’s collection is described as a Gentleman by an Unknown Artist.

This discussion was launched by Scott Duggan on 10 September 2015 but did not go live for another two years when Kieran (15/11/2017) identified an entry in the Aberdeen University Review (1923) describing ‘a proper portrait of Alexander Gerard in the Senatus room at King's College, and one of his wife as well. He is a nice-looking man, wearing a small white wig’.

THE SITTER. The fascinating caricature, Sapient Septemviri (10/09/2015), a copy of which is in the National Portrait Gallery, is not sufficient to support the Gerard identification. The Rev. James Ogilvie (1695-1776) has been suggested as an alternative identification (10/07/2021) but the similarities with another portrait seem coincidental; furthermore, the possible identification of James Nisbet as the artist of the Ogilvie portrait (Kieran, 11/07/2021) does not help because the University of Aberdeen portrait, the subject of this discussion, is clearly by another hand.

Kieran (20/03/2018) cleverly identified the distinguishing feature of the three tassels on the gown in our portrait which is found in several other academic portraits of the period but unfortunately this is not a clincher in the identification.

THE ARTIST. Clearly not by Allan Ramsay. It was then suggested that the artist was probably of the generation of William Cochran, William Millar and David Martin (Martin Hopkinson, 15/11/2017). Of these Martin thought Millar most probable (10/07/2021). Other portraits by Millar on ArtUK confirm this as at least a possibility.

THE WAY FORWARD. Presumably the author of the entry in the Aberdeen University Review in 1923 had something to go on. Which makes me wonder if our portrait may be inscribed on the reverse of the frame or the canvas. This would be up to the University to investigate.

Unfortunately, this discussion has not produced sufficient evidence to change the current designation, “Portrait of a Gentleman. Unknown artist.” However, the date assigned to the portrait of 1678-1750 is untenable and should be replaced with a date range, c.1750-1775. On this basis I recommend that the discussion should be closed.